Set deep in the American heartland of Iowa corn country, director Ramin Bahrani's stark farmland drama At Any Price chronicles one family's moral decay among the amber waves of grain. The film also has a few things to say about America herself and, as the title suggests, the cultural premium we place on winning.
Dennis Quaid plays Henry Whipple, a third-generation farmer who hustles as a seed salesman for a giant agribusiness concern. For Henry, the math is simple: Success in business equals success in life. Everything else is secondary. In the opening scenes, Henry shamelessly attends the funeral of a neighboring farmer to get first dibs on buying the man's land. Henry's interactions with his own family—wife Irene (Kim Dickens) and teenage son Dean (Zac Efron)—are similar in tone. They're less conversations than proclamations; the blustery, empty platitudes of the salesman.
The young and restless Dean is in line to inherit the Whipple family business, but he'd much rather be racing cars. Dean is a local hero on the circle-eight dirt tracks, but his commitment to winning is less focused than Henry's. In fact, Dean's NASCAR dreams seem like a sublimation of deeper desire, to get the hell away from dad.
The relationship between Henry and Dean is the core of film, one that is tested and twisted as the crises mount. When Henry comes under investigation for illegally reselling patented corn seeds, the Whipple family legacy is put in jeopardy. We learn that Henry's supplier is an outfit called Liberty Seed, which doesn't rhyme with Monsanto, but may as well. Liberty's engineered seeds are considered patented intellectual property, and farmers like Henry can't just replant them. "These guys don't copyright movies," Henry says. "They copyright life."
Director Bahrani never locks in directly on the corporate agribusiness issues, but they thrum like a dull ache under all that transpires. Henry's desperate huckster routine is a result of fundamental way-of-life changes brought about by monster companies like Liberty. As a midsize farmer, Henry has to gobble up his smaller neighbors and cut the occasional ethical corner. "Get big or get out" is the pitiless motto of this modern agrarian community.
The criminal investigation proceeds and Henry's increasingly poor decisions trigger a slow-motion cascade of heartbreak and tragedy. The delicate surface tension of the family and the community is broken. Dean's big opportunity at the racetrack goes sideways. A rival farmer (Clancy Brown) and his son become involved. Blood is spilled and the film grows darker still as unexpected thriller elements emerge.
Unexpected might be the key term here, overall. At Any Price is a film full of small surprises that add up. These heartland folks don't behave like they should and the moral quandaries are complex and layered. The usual plot formulas are discarded. Nothing is tidy.
Everything pivots on the tremendous performance of Quaid, who fairly vibrates with twitchy anxiety, his forced smile poised on the edge of collapse. Henry learns his lessons the hard way, but his story doesn't follow the usual arc of redemption. Dickens, as the put-upon wife, flips the script as well. Oh, she's country strong, all right.
Efron's performance is the movie's weak link, as he tries and fails to vent Dean's burning resentments. So much of screen acting is in the eyes, and Efron's famously arctic gaze never conveys much beyond vague agitation. Red West—the former Elvis bodyguard and star of Bahrani's film Goodbye Solo—plays grandpa Cliff Whipple, family patriarch. With his ancient visage, West lends weight and menace to the other end of the father-son through line, but he's an intermittent presence.
At Any Price is an artful and deliberate film, and you might spot the flitting shadows of Fargo, Death of a Salesman or even that lurid study of decay, Blue Velvet. Watch for two parallel crowd scenes—one at a racetrack, one at a funeral. Bahrani pauses in each to inventory his characters, in victory and in loss.
Visually, the film is never anything less than lovely. Bahrani's longtime cinematographer Michael Simmonds blows out the cornfield palette into a suffocating assault of greens and yellows. It's a perfect complement to the story's evocation of moral nausea amid the heartland bounty.
The film's gutsy coda delivers an uncomfortable ambiguity and a high, keen note of sadness. The Whipple family business has survived and expanded. They've won, but at what price?
This article appeared in print with the headline "Death of a corn man."